America is the land of opportunity. Perhaps the value we cherish most after our individual freedoms is the opportunities those freedoms provide. People from every economic class, every nationality, every race and both genders (or maybe I should say ‘every gender’) have achieved great things. That is why we say things like ‘nothing is impossible’ and ‘you can do anything you set your mind to.’ Status is no hindrance to success.
Perhaps that is why the notion that God chooses to save some people and not others is anathema to us. We believe salvation should be equally available to all. But is that a biblical concept or one that comes from our cultural background?
A careful reading of scripture shows us that, as much as the idea may seem distasteful to us, salvation is inaccessible to some. Take a look at John 10:22-28:
“So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly. Jesus answered them, I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand..”
Notice Jesus did not reject these Jews because they did not believe. He said they did not believe because they had already been rejected, i.e. they did not belong to his sheep.
So who chooses the sheep? The Father does. In John 17:6 Jesus says, “ I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” Notice the sheep belonged to the Father even before they came to faith in Jesus.
This is consistent with Romans 9:10-13:
“…when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, The older will serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
God had chosen Jacob and rejected Esau even before they were born. His decision was based solely on his own determination. Nothing that either Esau or Jacob could do would change his mind. You might say Esau drew the short straw.
The choosing of the younger over the older, the lesser over the greater is a pattern that is repeated throughout scripture. Jacob was chosen over Esau. Abel was chosen over Cain. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael. Joseph and David were chosen over their older brothers. The younger son was chosen over the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children” (Mt 11:25). When the Pharisees complained that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Paul said, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:28-29). James 2:5 says, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”
So does God really favor some over others? The answer is “yes.” This may seem unjust. But the Apostle Paul anticipates this objection. In the book of Romans he says, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”(Rm 9:14-15). His purpose is to demonstrate justice on the one hand by meting out judgment to some, and to exhibit mercy by pardoning others. In the end, no one gets less than they deserve and some get much more, a principle illustrated in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 13 where the workers who are hired last get paid as much as the workers who are hired first. The fact that he chooses the lesser over the greater shows that merit plays absolutely no part in his selection.
All of this is totally at the discretion of the Father as Paul explains in Romans 9:18-23, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”
Paul then plays the devil’s advocate, “You will say to me then, Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will? But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.” Both the vessels of glory and the vessels of wrath have been prepared by God beforehand.
If God pardoned everyone, where would his justice be? If he pardoned no one, where would his mercy be? By rights, no one is entitled to go free. But God withholds judgment from those whom he chooses to show mercy, not based on their own righteousness, but on the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile he displays his justice against others whose hearts he has chosen to harden.
In John 15:16 Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” In Matthew 11:27, Jesus said, “… no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him.” Paul did not choose Christ. He was on his way to arrest the believers in Damascus and bring them to Jerusalem to stand trial for their faith when Jesus stopped him in his tracks and made him do an about face. He was not seeking God, but breathing out threats against the saints. Matthew had allied himself with the Roman government against his own people as a tax collector. He was busy extorting his countrymen when Jesus walked by and called him to follow.
Nicodemas had no idea what it meant to be ‘born from above’ when he went to Jesus by night. What Jesus was trying to tell him was that he could no more enter the kingdom of God on his own than a baby could give birth to itself. New birth is an act of the Holy Spirit entirely external to one’s self. Paul says that Christ imparted life to us when we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Col 2:13, Eph 2:5). He gave us life when we were spiritually stillborn. He says we were reconciled to God while we were still his enemies (Rom 5:10), not after we turned to him for forgiveness. New birth precedes faith. Faith is impossible until the Holy Spirit imparts life to our morbid spirits.
The reason Jesus spoke to people in parables was to hide the truth from those whom the Father deliberately chose to harden. Matthew 10:13-15 says:
“Then the disciples came and said to him, Why do you speak to them in parables? And he answered them, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
Jesus was saying that the Father opens the eyes and ears of those to whom he has chosen to reveal the truth and stops the ears and blinds the eyes of those from whom he has hidden the truth. He does the revealing and the hiding because he is sovereign, not because some are willing to listen and others are not. Notice he is speaking about hearing and seeing, not listening and looking. He is the one who gives the ability to receive the gospel or not. We are not the ones who choose whether or not to accept the truth.
Romans 8:28-30 attributes the entire process of salvation to the sovereign action of God, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
These verses are meant to assure us that God will complete the work he began in us when we first believed because he chose us even when we were dead in our sins and estranged from him. If he loved us enough to sacrifice his only Son on our behalf while we were still alienated from him, why should he condemn us now that we have been reconciled to him? As Paul goes on to say:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm 8:31-35, 37-39)
It is a tremendous comfort for the believer to realize that it was God who chose him when there was absolutely nothing he could do to win God’s favor. It is not such a comfort if we believe we took the first step towards Christ, because the whole process of salvation is then ultimately contingent upon our obedience. As the Bible says, “We love him because he first loved us.” If his love for us is conditional, we would soon fall out of favor because our obedience is so imperfect. But we are saved by grace through faith. “And this is not your own doing; it (i.e. faith) is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8-9). Faith itself is a gift from God. We are new creations in Christ Jesus. The very same One who gave life to our natural bodies gave us spiritual life.
If God is sovereign, there is nothing outside his control. Sovereign implies having control over everything. God even uses evil to achieve his own good purposes. Chief among those purposes is our salvation (Rm 8:28-29).
For instance, Jesus orchestrated the horrible events of his crucifixion to accomplish salvation for us. He was not a victim of circumstances. He was in control of everything that happened to him. Pilate had no authority over him that had not been given by the Father (Jn 19:11). Jesus laid down his own life to take it up again. No one took it from him, “This is why the Father loves me – because I lay down my life, so that I may take it back again. No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again” (John 10:17-18). Christ used the seemingly tragic circumstances of the crucifixion to conquer sin and death. In this he demonstrated his sovereignty over everything including evil. He is a creator who can make something marvelous out of worthless materials (like you and me).
Having a solid grasp on the sovereignty of God in salvation makes a tremendous difference when it comes to having assurance of salvation, a proper understanding of scripture, a deeper devotion to Jesus Christ, and a heart full of praise for God.
If you believe salvation is within your own grasp, that you have the ability to “accept Jesus as your Savior” or to “ask Him into your heart” without first being reborn by the Holy Spirit, then you will never be overwhelmed by the sense of gratitude that comes from knowing God chose you when there was absolutely nothing you could do to save yourself. You will never know the continual sense of reverence, adoration and profound gratitude that salvation brings. Nor will you be able to offer yourself up for the kind of sacrificial service that such devotion brings.
You certainly won’t have the same appreciation for your own moral depravity if you believe that you had enough goodness to embrace Christ in the first place. Many professing Christians have never even acknowledged their sin. They have simply “accepted Jesus into their heart” without ever repenting of their sins and seeking God’s forgiveness.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus summed up the gospel message this way, “Repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mar 1:5; Mt 3:2). In Acts 2:37-41 Peter was not shy about pointing out the sins of his listeners when he said, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36). It was these words that convicted the people, causing them to be “cut to the heart” and to beg for mercy. Peter went on to say, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38).
Without the convicting work of the Holy Spirit there can be no repentance and no forgiveness. Omitting the part of the gospel that deals with sin and judgment denies the sinner the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit. That is why so many conversions that take place in the comfortable “seeker friendly” confines of the modern church are suspect. There is nothing “friendly” about God’s wrath against sin. It is the task of the one who proclaims the gospel to move the sinner towards an awareness of his guilt before a holy God who condemns sin. Then it is up to the Holy Spirit to cut to the heart, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, as he discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12), producing conviction of sin and genuine repentance.
Mark 4:26-29 says, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Here Jesus explains how the Spirit gives new life to the believer. It is a transformation, not a deliberation. It happens almost imperceptibly, like the blowing of the wind or the gradual growth of the seed. It does not take place in response to manipulation, pressure or cajoling. But over time change is inevitable and perceptible if there is genuine conversion.
My wife has a friend who was not a believer for the longest time. His friends often shared the Four Spiritual Laws with him and tried to get him to pray a prayer of commitment, but he resisted. He once compared Christians to a bunch of used car salesmen. But he had enough interest in spiritual things to listen to Christian radio. He especially enjoyed the messages of one preacher. This man never made appeals or issued altar calls. He never asked people to pray to receive Jesus Christ. He just preached the Word of God chapter by chapter and verse by verse. Finally one day, my wife’s friend pulled his car over to the side of the road as he was listening and committed his life to Jesus Christ.
Isn’t that the way it happened so often in the Bible? Jesus would encounter some needy person who would beg for mercy and he would offer healing or pardon and that man or woman would go away rejoicing their forgiveness. These people all had one thing in common. They knew their need and they were willing to acknowledge it and seek help. Like the tax collector who went home justified because he could not even look up to heaven but just beat upon his chest crying, “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!” Or the harlot who poured oil on Jesus feet while she wept over her own sins. Or the tax collector who was so thrilled at Jesus acceptance of him that he vowed to repay everyone whom he had cheated four times over. Or the thousands who were mortified that they had crucified the very Son of God and begged Peter for a chance to make things right.
If salvation is a sovereign act of God, then the only way to produce true conversion is through the faithful preaching of the Word of God which is the agent through which he works. It should involve no pressure tactics, no manipulative techniques, and no compromise of the gospel message. It will take time and the results will not always be immediately apparent. There will be gradual progress in the faith both individually and corporately, but there will be steady movement in the same direction – towards obedience to the Word of God, deeper devotion to Jesus Christ, more intimate fellowship with other believers and a profound joy and boundless gratitude for the grace and mercy of God.